DigitalPro Shooter Volume 4, Issue 1, December 18, 2005

Sunrise over the Namib Desert
Nikon D2X, 24-120VR

Southern Africa Photo Safari:
Lots of Everything Except Crowds

I've just returned from several weeks in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa leading a photo safari & also doing some shooting afterwards with some of the participants. It was truly an inspiring event. We had day after day of exciting shooting opportunities, unique looks at the natural world and its animals and chances to learn plenty of photography from each other. Our enthusiastic participants ranged from seasoned digital photographers to those just picking up their first D-SLR. But the small group size (9 participants with 2 photo instructors, in addition to a tour leader and 3 local guides) ensured that everyone got plenty of individual attention.

Getting There

Leopard stalking its prey
There are two ways to think about the long flight from the US to southern Africa. Either as a long and tedious ordeal or as the necessary distancing of oneself from everyday life before plunging headlong into the bush. Either way it takes awhile and you're very ready to to believe that you are at the end of the earth by the time you arrive at your first bush camp.

In my case I was excited to finally be on a trip we had been planning for months. Along with Steve Rimer, an enterprising developer of custom trips and Mike Myers, a seasoned bush pilot, specialist guide, photographer and manager for Wilderness Safaris I was co-leading Wilderness's first ever digital photo safari. We'd be visiting some of the world's most exotic locales including the Skeleton Coast and Namib Desert in Namibia and the Okavango Delta and Linyanti region in Botswana. We'd see a nearly countless variety of wildlife and some once in a lifetime scenes. Steve and Wilderness had done a great job picking out some of their best camps-the tents were almost like mini open air hotel rooms-and we were in for quite a treat.

Why a Digital Photo Safari?

Dunes on Namibia's Skeleton Coast
Nikon D2H, 24-120VR
First and foremost, having a safari where everyone is thinking about photography is a real treat. Each day's activities are planned with photo opportunities and educational possibilities in mind. Participants have plenty of time to interact with instructors and the "instant review" capability of digital allows progress in leaps and bounds. But there are many other less obvious but quite important reasons to participate in a dedicated digital photo safari, beginning with logistics:

One of the standard problems when traveling to Africa intending to photograph is luggage. Most tours don't really allow you to bring enough gear to do a proper job of photographing wildlife or scenery. Even a tripod is usually out of the question when your luggage is limited to the standard 26 or 44 pounds when traveling on small planes in the area. We'd made special arrangement for a larger plane so we could take our photo equipment along with us, a necessity for any serious photography.

Another obvious problem with doing photography on a standard safari is "photo etiquette." People moving around in trucks can ruin the best of shots. When a group is all photographers it is standard practice for everyone to stay still while shooting-knowing that we'd find a way for each participant to get some great shots before leaving a prime photo opportunity.

A related problem is attention span. Many tourists are happy to see as many animals as possible, racing off to the next after a brief "Wow!" Photographers, of course, can stay and work on photographing a gorgeous creature like a leopard for hours. By having a specialized tour we were able to spend as much time as we needed getting the very best shots for our participants.

And finally there is what to do with the photos. All safaris feature a few hours of "downtime" most days when the blazing sun is too bright and the temperature too hot for people and most animals. However, in this case we'd brought along laptops and a digital projector so we could teach sessions on wildlife photography, digital workflow and photo editing in between game drives. Best yet we could work on participants' images that they had shot that day, providing real time feedback and learning while we were still in the field. To accommodate this we'd also needed to make special arrangements to have enough electrical power at the camp. For participants un-interested in the photo talks the game guides, often natives of the area, spoke about the local wildlife and ecosystem.

We did all this with a small group-just 9 participants in this case, with a maximum of 10-so that we could fit comfortably in the smallest and most spectacular camps and also to ensure that everyone had lots of time for personalized instruction and we had plenty of room to work our subjects without overwhelming or stressing them.

Having been to Africa before on trips which were exciting but didn't have all these special touches the participants and I really appreciated these extras which helped make the safari both a "trip of a lifetime" and a true photographic success.

Africa-The Southern Way

Lion cub enjoying 
a mid-day play break
Everyone is familiar with the spectacular wildlife viewing opportunities available in Africa, but not everyone understands how Southern Africa (especially Botswana and Namibia) differ in from Eastern Africa (typically Kenya and Tanzania). Botswana and Namibia have implemented a private concession system. This provides limited and exclusive access to entire areas of the country to those staying within them. The result is a true safari experience. Many days we saw no one else but our group when out on safari. This contributes to a unique sense of the vastness of the African landscape and to the special feeling when coming across a sighting. By contrast the most famous areas of Eastern Africa are public parks densely traveled by safari vehicles. A kill or other sighting is often followed by the arrival of many other trucks and kill sites often look like parking lots. In my case I'm addicted to the Southern African experience.

Safari-The Game Drive

Male Waterbuck
Each day we started before dawn, to capture the sunrise and make sure we were in the field for the early morning light. Never did a mile go by without some type of photographic opportunity for antelope or a colorful bird. In Botswana in particular the variety of wildlife was breathtaking. In our 12 days in the bush we photographed well over 130 species, including 38 species of mammals and 70 species of birds. While we were busy photographing the animals we saw, our guides were looking for tracks or sounds of the more elusive predators including Leopard, Lion and Cheetah or some of the large herbivores including Black Rhino, Hippo, Elephants and Giraffe. If we found tracks it was off across the bush for some "off-roading" as we tracked the animals. Another advantage of the private concessions we used was that we were normally able to go off-road to track interesting animals because the very low density of vehicles limits the damage to the environment to that which can be 'repaired' quickly by nature.

Wilderness Safaris limits the number of vehicles near sensitive animals to a maximum of 3-usually with only 3 or 4 shooters each-so there is never a "human zoo" crowded around a kill or other sighting. Since we normally had reserved the entire camp for our group of 9 participants and 3 leaders our 3 trucks were often the only ones we'd see for most of the day.

Our guides were excellent trackers, and we were able to see leopards, lions and cheetahs on many occasions, and follow them as they hunted. We saw several kills and near misses, and were also able to watch a pride of lions lead their cubs to a hidden killed Warthog for feeding and a Wildebeest escape from two cheetahs when a Hyena attempted to get involved and 'poach' the wildebeest from the cheetahs.


Leopard getting ready to start the evening hunt
Stopping for a drink at sundown is a safari tradition. For photographers the event is particularly special since there is often a colorful sunset to capture. We had several very memorable evenings, including one where we had the sunset in one direction while in the other hippos ambled slowly up the bank and out of the water to begin their evening feeding on the grass in the bush.

The Photography

Of course on a photo safari the big question is always "how was the photography?" Awesome! I've listed just a few of the many highlights below. And of course all the photos in this newsletter and in my trip gallery were taken during the two weeks of the trip--and represent just a tiny fraction of the nearly 8000 images I captured while I was there. We'll be assembling a participants gallery as well, as Mike, Steve and I were all blown away by how much the participants improved while they were there and by some of their great images.

Lioness and cub go hunting

Wildlife Highlights

  • 2 Cheetahs taking down a Wildebeest calf, then having it stolen by a Hyena prematurely, allowing the calf to get up and run off.

  • Watching a leopard stalk and kill a squirrel, then move off to hunt Impala

  • Watching a pride of lions feed their young from a stashed kill, as well as move off to hunt at sunset

  • Watching Bullfrogs mate, including lots of "aerial" combat as males lunged headlong into other males attempting to keep them from mating

  • Red Lechwe antelope highlighted by the sunrise against the mist

  • Watching Hippo come out of the water to feed

  • Watching Waterbuck huddle together for protection during a rainstorm

Dune shapes provided 
loads of fun!

Scenic Highlights

  • Capturing the lightning bolts from across the Linyanti using a lightning trigger while the sun set

  • Experience Highlights

  • Making the dunes on the Skeleton Coast "roar" as we slid down them (note that in Namibia many dunes are only sand so that human and vehicle tracks are gone in minutes-we didn't climb or disturb the dunes which have vegetation, as those are fragile)



Himba villagers live the way they
have for hundreds of years
Unlike the relatively verdant and game rich areas of Botswana, Namibia is largely desert and semi-desert. The resulting harsh environment of rocky plains, huge sand dunes and brittle crust create a sur-real environment unique on the planet. While the animal photography opportunities are more limited than Botswana, the scenics can be breathtaking and the animal sightings take on a special significance as the creatures we see there are the less common desert-adapted versions of their savannah-bound cousins.

Our group loved Namibia and many of us can't wait to go back. But the desert isn't for everyone, as it is harsh on people and equipment and requires some extra travel, so we'll be offering one trip next year which includes both Botswana and Namibia (in May) and another which stays in Botswana and focuses on the wildlife photography opportunities there (in November).

Classroom in the Bush

Unlike other cats, Cheetah 
often hunt during the day
Thanks to some great logistics support from Wilderness we were not only able to make sure that everyone could recharge their cameras and laptops at each camp, but we had a digital projector and screen so we could review the days shooting and teach for an hour or two each day. We covered topics ranging from wildlife photography techniques to using Photoshop to enhance the images we captured. The small group size (trips are limited to 10 photographers) allowed us to provide plenty of personalized instruction.

We also choose small camps so we were normally able to ensure that we were the only group in camp. That made it easy to spread out around the common area and work without worrying about our gear or about interfering with other guests.

Eat, Drink and be Merry

Desert Black Rhino are skittish & require
careful tracking for safe photography
Nikon D2X, 200-400VR, hand-held
Wilderness pampered us, starting with a breakfast buffet each morning before we went out and continuing with excellent food for either brunch or lunch each day as well as at tea time before we went out on our evening game drive and then awesome dinners when we returned. The only drawback is I'm pretty sure none of us lost any weight. None of the 12 of us ever got the slightest bit sick from anything there, which is quite a tribute to the high standards of hygiene in the camps. Each camp also has a fully stocked bar, and plenty of bottled water, so we were always provided for.

All of the camps had flush toilets in the "tents" (these tents were really more like small bungalows featuring showers, sinks, and toilets) and most featured raised boardwalks from the common areas out to the privately situated tents-allowing the animals to wander freely around camp. The staff is there to escort guests to their rooms after dark.

2006 Trips

These Burchell Zebra are as curious 
about us as we are about them.

I'll be doing two trips in 2006 (in partnership with Wilderness Safaris, Steve Rimer, and Journeys Unforgettable), each with a different flavor. In May I'm the photo lead on another trip to Namibia and Botswana, which will provide a great mix of adventure, scenic photography and wildlife. In November we'll be doing a trip much more focused on wildlife photography. We'll spend the entire 12 days in the wildlife rich areas of Botswana, allowing 4 days for each camp, which lets us to spend more time perfecting our mammal and bird photography both in the field and in the classroom.

For more information on the trips, visit my safari page:

Trip news:

Grizzly bear trip, Last Chance:
We've also still got one slot for each of our Grizzly Bear & Puffin weeks in July 2006, so sign up soon.

Africa 2006:

--David Cardinal, Editor, DigitalPro Shooter

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New Products

Epson Print Academy expanded to 2 days, one for D-SLR enthusiasts and one for Pros: Read the details on our homepage:

Nikon is now shipping the Nikon D200 D-SLR (10.2MP, 5fps, D2-like controls & feature sub-set). I played with one a little and was quite impressed by how similar the controls are to the D2X and D2H. I think it would be an excellent backup camera for a pro with a D2X and is certainly a good "step-up" camera for someone looking to move up from the D50 or D70. In my case I don't see how to justify the expense since I already have a D2X and a D2H (which I like for the clean 8fps and convenient file size), but I like the D200 enough (the same way I enjoyed having an F100) that I'll continue to try to think of a reason to get one!

Magix has introduced PhotoStory on CD & DVD 4. For users looking for a more powerful but inexpensive alternative to Microsoft's free PhotoStory for Windows, Magix has a very competent product offering. I've been experimenting with it and like the fairly simple user interface which is still powerful enough to allow you to create flexible timelines and audio tracks. Magix PhotoStory can produce movies or CD or DVD slideshows. I'll be doing a more complete review of it and ProShow Producer (a much more expensive product) in a future DPS. Magix PhotoStory retails for $39.99.

DigitalPro Tip

DigitalPro 4 for Windows image browsing & cataloging software has just been released. It is faster than ever, with literally dozens of user-requested new features & user-interface enhancements. You can learn more or download it here.

--David Cardinal, Editor, DigitalPro Shooter

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